'Sexism will not vanish with the wave of a magic voting lever'
As a feminist movement builder for four decades, I should be more excited about the prospect of America’s first woman president. If Hillary Clinton wins, I’ll savor the moment with a whole heart. My life’s work has been about advancing women. And isn’t this the pinnacle?
But my experience from the lowliest grassroots in the small towns of Texas and Arizona to the highest halls of political power in Washington, D.C. and New York, tells me that a Clinton victory may be sweet in the moment for women, but it won’t be spell victory. It merely heralds the beginning of a new set of challenges on the long road to full gender parity and leadership power sharing.
Now—when women students outnumber men in universities, reproductive technologies have changed the power balance in relationships and multiple studies show that more women in upper leadership lead to higher profits—is exactly the time for women to seize opportunities in and beyond politics and in order to manifest real change.
Looking back, I’ve had the opportunity to see and sometimes to lead the kind of change I’m talking about. During the 1960’s I managed to find the six at-large members of National Organization for Women in a 100-mile radius of Odessa, Texas, as a young wife and mother of three.
At the age of 21 in 1963, it seemed right when President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act. I also felt a sense of justice in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The same feeling overcame me in 1965 when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized contraception, and again in 1973 when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade decriminalizing abortion. During this time I had the euphoric sense that progress in civil rights, including women’s rights, was on an upward trajectory and that these advances would continue unabated.
But then the backlash came in opposition to those advances. It propelled some religious groups into an alliance with the Republican Party, which resulted in the GOP largely turning its back on women’s rights. The decisions in the 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case and the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case rolled back key provisions of Roe.
Energized by these setbacks, in 1992, a record number of women voted and elected a record number of women to Congress and a pro-abortion rights president. It was dubbed the Year of the Woman. Unfortunately, many of the women who voted in droves in 1992 stayed home in 1994, and Republican Newt Gingrich roared into Congressional leadership with an agenda that negatively affected women and children.
Not all progress stopped. At the 1994 Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing, I was in the room when First Lady Clinton said, “Women’s rights are human rights.” She spoke from the heart, and her speech still inspires me today.
When I became president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1996, I had already served the organization in Texas and Arizona for 22 years. I entered the New York and Washington political fray to find the women’s organization coalition demoralized. Even meetings called by then First Lady Clinton seemed devoid of passion for advancing the strategic proactive agenda my experience in the reddest of states had taught me to keep front and center always or risk getting completely demolished.
In 2005, I left that role and moved my focus back to the larger women’s rights platform where my career had begun, realizing that unless women share power and leadership, we will continue to fight the same old battles over and over. In 2008 during Clinton’s first presidential campaign, I was shocked to learn women had been stalled at under 20% of the top leadership positions across all sectors for almost two decades. Women are breadwinners in the majority of families and the primary breadwinners in over 40% of American families now. Yet reaching full leadership parity has been elusive.
My research found women’s own culturally learned ambivalence about power has formed a toxic brew with a pervasive implicit bias favoring men as leaders, making the pace of progress so slow that it would take 70 years to reach parity. This led me in 2013 to cofound Take The Lead to speed up leadership parity to 2025.
Signs are that the pace of progress is accelerating across all sectors, including the race for President dominating public discourse in these last days before the election. I can practically hear the sound of that highest hardest glass ceiling shattering, and more women than ever are running for office at all levels.
Not surprisingly, many claim 2016 is again “The Year of the Woman.” And perhaps it will be. But from the many firsts I have witnessed and participated in, I know that if Secretary Clinton wins, women can afford to celebrate the victory for five minutes and then we must get back to work.
Sexism will not vanish with the wave of a magic voting lever any more than racism stopped when President Barack Obama—the first black president—was elected. Prepare for wicked blowback. But don’t let it deter us.
This is the moment to address the obvious agenda items and to roll out new, creative ones: fair pay; the Equal Rights Amendment at last; addressing child care and caregiving in general so both men and women can take care of their families while earning a living; leadership parity across all sectors to boost profits as well as justice, reproductive justice, health care, and fostering an innovative economy in which all can contribute to their highest abilities and thrive.
The exact agenda isn’t as important as the mindset with which we approach it. We must always think like insurgents knowing the future remains ours to create with our vision, courage and passion. Power and energy come from moving into new spaces, never from playing defense or fighting on an adversary’s turf.
When there is a first female president of the U.S., my granddaughters will know they can become president—and perhaps more important, my grandsons will, too. We will have taken one more step toward the full realization of the American dream.
I want to see that. And I’ll celebrate it not as a culmination but as the chance for a new beginning.
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